Sermon Series: Questions Jesus Asked
“But the other nine, where are they?”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 5, 2020
5th Sunday after Pentecost
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. As he enters a village bordering Galilee and Samaria, he is approached by ten lepers who live at the boundaries of the region. They are outsiders. Once upon a time, they may have been divided by such things as profession, religion, or nationality, but now they are united by a common goal—survival. Together they seek their most basic needs for they are at the mercy of others.
Perhaps the day begins like any other as the ten lepers wander from their dwelling place to approach—as close as they dare—the people passing by—people on their way to family—on their way to friends—on their way to lives. But the ten lepers have none of those options available to them. Instead, they make their way along the familiar trek to plead for crumbs from society.
The lepers have heard about Jesus—this One who calls himself the Son of Man—this one who has amazing healing powers. So, they rush toward him and call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us! Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” We can only imagine the anguish in their voices. Here is their one chance—their one shot at being healed. So, they cry out. They do not care about social norms, about proper behavior, about what people will think of them. What man cares about social graces when he has already lost everything?
The lepers cry out from the depths of their hearts in sheer desperation. Desperation often has that effect on us. When we come up against something in life over which we have no control, when the diagnosis is cancer, when the marriage is about to end, when hopes and dreams go up in smoke—we are likely to fall to our knees with tears streaming down our faces. In that place of darkness, we too, plea for mercy from the depths of our soul. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on me!”
Jesus sees the lepers, this sampling of broken humanity, and he has compassion for them. “Go and show yourselves to the priests,” he says. They do not even stop to ask for clarification. They just go—maybe a little slowly, at first. After all, slow may be the only speed they are capable of—with extremities deadened by disease. Then transformation begins. They start to feel a tingling sensation in their fingers and toes. Strength returns to arms and legs. Smiles appear on faces that are no longer distorted. With each step their pace quickens. They near the temple, eager to receive the stamp of approval that will allow them to return home—home to family—home to friends—home to lives.
Except for one. One man restored to health turns to leave the other nine. He retraces his steps because he feels compelled to go back to the Source of his healing. His heart is nearly bursting with joy as he approaches Jesus but this time, this time he does not stand off at a distance. This time he goes right up to Jesus and proceeds to fall on his face at his feet. With hands and face gripping the dirt beneath Jesus’ feet, he gives thanks and praise!
And he is a Samaritan! To many Jews, he is considered “unclean” with or without leprosy. Yet, with one word from Jesus he is no longer unclean—no longer unaccepted. Instead he is made well. With his restored body, he has gained a new way of being in the world. And from this point on, what he does with his life will be his gift back to God. So, he begins the best way he knows how—with praise. The Samaritan, the foreigner, praises God and gives thanks to Jesus who is the source of his healing. In response, Jesus asks, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?
“The other nine, where are they?” Well, they are off doing exactly what Jesus told them to do—showing themselves to the priests—and along their path to obedience they are healed. Still, we cannot help but consider Jesus’ question: Where are the other nine?
Imagine with me for a moment: A cure for COVID-19 has been found and we are safely gathered to worship in our lovely sanctuary. Now, in your mind’s eye, notice the empty pews in the balcony and on the main floor. Finally, notice how few young people are in our midst. Where are the other nine?
In the introduction of her book, Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, Carol Howard Merritt shares her story about being a child of the 70’s attending a conservative church with her family—every Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and any other time the doors were open. She did not mind—quite the opposite—she loved the church—and could not wait to reach the age when she could participate more. She was particularly interested in mission work. But things changed when she went to college and began to delve deeper into her faith. As a feminist who believed that in Jesus Christ “there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female,” she had to face the fact that in her church her spiritual gifts were not acknowledged. She saw herself as an environmentalist, yet the church was more concerned about the great by-and-by than in being good stewards of God’s great land. And how was she to resolve her experience of people outside the church being more gracious, loving, accepting, and responsible—more Christ-like—than the people who gathered inside the church?
Eventually, Merritt experienced God’s grace and was nurtured in her faith through the Presbyterian Church (USA). Her journey is not uncommon for people of her age-group. But the truth is, today there are many folks of all ages who are looking for a place where their ideas on environmentalism, economic equality, and justice for all people can be heard and where their connection to God can be nurtured.
The other nine, where are they?
When it comes to young adults, while many have left the church, others are seeking a place to call their spiritual home. So, what is it that draws them to the church? A special issue of Presbyterians Today entitled “Young Adults: Their Vision for the Church” reveals that there is a shift in what young people are seeking in worship. Instead of amusement and entertainment, they are interested in worship that points them to God and fills them with a sense of the sacred. On this theme, Rachel Held Evans wrote, “We’re not leaving church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there…What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.”
Nathan Proctor who is an associate director of music in a Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC, wrote the following:
I am a millennial who unabashedly loves worship. I love the energy of being around people, singing hymns together, hearing new ideas from Scripture, and then discussing it all over lunch…Authenticity is essential…We have too often experienced church as a social group busy with the work of going through the motions…Now is the time for something real! We want to feel the joys and sorrows of those around us instead of being met with the happy Sunday church face. Church leaders: tell us something about faith or this church that really matters. Help us discover what is new in Scripture, moving us toward deeper understanding. Make us feel the world Jesus inaugurates. Challenge us; give us something new to think about.
“The other nine, where are they?”
Seekers young and old are challenging the church to redefine what it means to BE the church. For example, while many of us have questioned the value of new technology like Facebook, months of livestreaming may have changed our opinion. How can we ignore the fact that our church is reaching three and four times more people via livestream than we do for in-person worship on any given Sunday? And when the pandemic is over and we are able to return to “church as normal,” will we continue to welcome people into our midst, virtually? Will we learn the languages of Facebook, Instagram, and Zoom to discover new ways to share Christ’ love with those who may never darken the door of 313 N. Patterson Street? Might we even be open to offering hybrid educational experiences that welcome in-person and distance learning?
Especially in these trying times, folks are searching for more of God. They need hope. They yearn for a space that will allow them to listen for the still, small voice of God. They want to be inspired by beauty and wonder—so much so—they cannot help but fall at the feet of Jesus to offer their own word of thanks and praise.
“The other nine, where are they?”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(Let us keep silence.)
*Cover Photograph for the “Questions Jesus Asked” Sermon Series taken by Rev. Rachel Crumley during a
Pastoral Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009